As if owning a Mercedes-Benz AMG weren’t thrilling enough, every buyer of a new model is now being offered a complimentary day of driving at a racetrack with professional racecar drivers as guides. This offer is valid for one year from the date of delivery of your AMG and can be redeemed at one of four world-class racing facilities: Laguna Seca in California, Road Atlanta in Georgia, Circuit of the Americas in Texas and Lime Rock Park in nearby Connecticut. Despite the inherent goosebump-raising thrill of a day of driving fast, powerful cars at potentially triple-digit speeds, J. Agresta, principal at Benzel-Busch in Englewood, NJ, decided he and his team had to add another dose of excitement. Eligible AMG owners were invited to gather at the dealership a day ahead of their driving appointment for a unique and exclusive event: a road rally to their hotel. Of course, overnight accommodations were provided courtesy of Benzel-Busch. Very classy!
Upon arrival, the AMG owners were treated to a light lunch while their cars were “badged” with a uniquely designed vinyl rally badge and car number. Just prior to departure, Agresta’s team handed each participant a goodie bag filled with snacks, bottled spring water and a folder with rally route instructions and scavenger-hunt questions. The team even provided drivers with personalized AMG polo shirts!
The eager participants were told that valuable prizes awaited the highest-scoring rally teams. “Don’t get lost and answer the questions” were the departing words of the rally master.
The Englewood police had generously blocked off the street and reserved the entire block for rally parking to ensure drivers could safely convoy to the Palisades Interstate Parkway as they made their way north to the rendezvous at their Connecticut hotel: the Interlaken.
Lime Rock Park raceway is located approximately two hours from Englewood in the northwest corner of New England where New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut come together. Although many paths will get you there, the rally instructions directed the more than two dozen participants onto scenic and entertaining twisty two-lane “blue roads” for the approximately one-hundred-mile adventure. Along the way, questions about signs, rivers, buildings and even farm animals were posed so both driver and navigator had to keep a sharp eye out.
The most interesting challenge involved, of all things, cows! The teams were asked to photograph any cows they saw and post them to social media with the hash tag #BBrally17. A bonus award was given to anyone who could snap a photo of a participant milking a cow. Believe it or not, a couple of intrepid folks managed to meet that challenge.
Of course, a team could inch along the route, fastidiously looking for answers to ensure they had a perfect score. But since this was an AMG owner rally, the first three teams to arrive at the hotel were awarded bonus points. That meant that pace was as important as patience.
LIVE NOT BY BREAD ALONE
For dinner, Benzel-Busch held a classic New England clambake complete with real “chow-dah” steamers, corn on the cob, crab cakes, flank steak and, of course, boiled whole lobster. AMG owners must live right because the weather cooperated, giving everyone a perfect late-summer evening for the outdoor feast. Rallying is thirsty work. Hence, there was an open bar with soft drinks, wine, beer and cocktails to wash down the food and memories of any wrong turns made on the rally.
Toward the end of the evening, J. Agresta awarded valuable prizes to the highest-finishing rally participants. Along with some good-natured kidding, he advised getting a good night’s rest because the on-track escapades started the next morning at 7:30!
WELCOME, WE ALL KNOW WHY WE’RE HERE
The early morning fog was drifting through the valley where Lime Rock Park is situated as entrants arrived. There was a buzz of activity from the crew of technicians who were vigilantly scrutinizing each of the 70 AMG cars the drivers would be using for their on-track education. Windows were polished, tire pressures were set to within a fraction of a pound, brakepad wear was inspected, and oil levels were checked to ensure every driver had a safe and problem-free experience.
Inside the AMG chalet — an elegant and amazing portable building transported to and assembled at each racing venue — registration was conducted, track-run groups assigned and helmets fitted along with a balaclava (AKA head scarf) to each driver. A full breakfast was offered, served on real china plates complete with linen tablecloths and napkins — of course!
While the participants were finishing breakfast, AMG Chief Instructor AJ Alsup introduced himself and explained his professional credentials (racer, champion, instructor). Next, he brought each instructor forward to do the same. The AMG team was a who’s who of professional racing in disciplines that ranged from open-wheel formula cars and motorcycles to Indy racers, sports cars, sprint cars and even NASCAR.
What came through loud and clear from all of the instructors as they spoke about their credentials is the passion they have for the AMG brand and the Driving Academy. Their guarantee was that by the end of the day, every one of the participants would be a better, safer driver with a superior understanding of the AMG’s handling, power and incredible braking ability.
“We will edge you out of your comfort zone,” Alsup exclaimed, again guaranteeing that if participants stayed focused, they would leave the day’s adventure as better, safer drivers.
FUNDAMENTALS WITH EMPHASIS ON FUN
Nothing the students would be facing was left to chance. Something most people take for granted — seating position — was graphically represented with logical reasons for why getting comfortable in the driver’s seat is so important. Alsup stressed that the ability to steer effectively, aggressively use the brakes and clearly see the entire road so you could drive the racing line starts with properly adjusting the seat and steering wheel. Next, he stressed the concept of “eyes up” or “eye work”: his terminology for the all-important job of looking as far ahead as possible.
Finally, Alsup presented an easy-to-understand, very informative explanation of vehicle dynamics. Terms like the line, oversteer, understeer, push and loose were defined and illustrated using videos. Having familiarity with the terms and then applying the lessons on the track were key to shortening the learning curve.
Before we split up into our teams, Alsup gathered everyone outside the chalet and conducted a short but effective set of limbering and stretching exercises.
While the drivers were at the track, invited guests, friends and spouses were picked up at the Interlaken and taken by tour bus to the Millbrook Winery for tasting and a gourmet lunch. All, once again, courtesy of Benzel-Busch!
Although Lime Rock Park is the shortest track the AMG Driving Academy uses, it has ample space to conduct every exercise in the program. While one team practices “panic” braking on a paved infield paddock, another is off to the wet skid pad to learn how to sense and then correct an impending slide. Both are done with football field–sized runoff areas for maximum safety. The main racetrack was used by the other teams to practice eye work and learn dynamic car control, plus sense and manage understeer and oversteer at higher than highway speed. More important, they were taught what a racing line is and why perfecting driving it can improve safety on the street.
FOLLOW THE LEADER
The first exercise for my team was follow-the-leader on the big track. Our coach, nicknamed Nipper, set the pace for the three cars that rode in his wake as he demonstrated the proper racing line. Each car had a portable radio in the door pocket that Nipper used to give instructions to his team. Two students were placed in each car. While the initial driver was learning the line, the second got the benefit of seeing the track firsthand before his or her turn behind the wheel.
The pace was, initially, what you could call brisk highway driving. However, with each passing lap, Nipper upped the speeds, keeping a watchful eye in his rearview mirror to make sure he wasn’t losing anyone. At different times during the run, Nipper clicked on his right directional and slowed his pace. This was a signal to the students to shuffle the order of the train of cars. The second car became the first, last second and first last. That way every driver had the opportunity to drive closely in the tracks of the lead car.
When I was the passenger, I occasionally glanced over at the digital speedometer for my copilot, Randy. He was studiously following the “eyes up” instructions, keeping his gaze out to where he had to brake, turn and track out. I, however, was more interested in our velocity! At the track’s famous uphill turn, we climbed at nearly 80 MPH. At the daunting downhill corner, our speed was about the same. Most impressive, just before the braking zone farther down the main straightaway, I saw Randy hit 119 MPH several times.
Despite the serious speed and the aggressive use of our AMG’s brakes to slow for the first corner (called Big Bend), nothing untoward happened. Engine water temperatures were normal. The brakes didn’t overheat or show a hint of fade. Air conditioning kept us cool. If you listened carefully, the tires made little screeching sounds in the corners but still gripped the asphalt like Scrooge to his wallet!
This exercise continued all morning with drivers swapping seats and teams switching to different model AMGs. At lunchtime, the AMG technical crew went over each car, rechecking tire pressures, refueling them with premium gas and cleaning windshields. I asked a mechanic if he ever ran into any mechanical issues and he laughed. Essentially, he said that the cars are so well built and so well maintained that besides replacing tires and brake pads nothing ever fails.
LEARNING TO PANIC
The first exercise of the afternoon was learning how to “panic” brake. Here we were leveraging the lessons about proper seating to ensure the driver could exert maximum braking pressure. We were asked to accelerate to 30 MPH (there was a radar-linked sign on the left to help us) and, as we passed a green cone, press on the brakes until we stopped.
Press on the brakes is really not descriptive enough. We were instructed to “hammer” the brakes as hard as humanly possible. This would engage the AMG’s remarkable antilock-braking system (i.e., ABS). We were told that many drivers never experience what happens when ABS gets engaged. Unfortunately, instead of using them harder, they lift, reducing the effectiveness and lengthening the stop time and distance. By slamming the brakes as instructed, we were able to feel in our foot and hear inside the car the pulsing (many, many times a second) of the system doing its job. We learned not to lift, absorbing the lesson to trust the remarkable stopping power built into each AMG.
Then, diabolically, our instructor raised the speed to 60 MPH and we repeated the exercise. The AMG’s race-proven braking system continued to wow every driver. The next and possibly most important lesson of this exercise was learning to steer while panic braking. Simple physics states that a locked wheel (one unmanaged by an ABS system) will not steer the car. As it slides, the car goes in the last direction it was pointed. Sadly, this could be off the road or into a pole, a deer or another vehicle.
We accelerated to 60 MPH toward a wall of rubber pylons. The instructor would wave his hand left or right to indicate the direction he wanted the driver to swerve. We had to turn, brake and then stop without hitting any of the pylons placed as obstructions. As challenging as that sounds, it was actually a lot of fun and extremely effective in giving us the muscle memory we could apply on the track or, more important, on our way home!
SLIP SLIDING AWAY
The video we watched in the morning briefing session explained oversteer (when the tail of the car slides out) and understeer (when the nose of the car plows off course). However, using Lime Rock’s wet skid pad, we were able to experience these phenomena in a safe, hazard-free environment — and have a lot of fun in the process.
We were taught a technique called CPR: correct, pause, recover. Of course, the electronic protective systems built into every Mercedes-Benz to prevent skids were switched off. When left on, none of us could make our AMGs do anything exciting. Turned off, we were able to sense the tail coming around, use fast hands and correct by turning in the direction of the skid. We would then pause when the skid stopped and recover by turning back in the intended direction. I’m making it sound a lot less challenging than it really is because most of us did a lot more spinning than anything else. Bottom line: what the majority of the drivers got from this exercise was a lot of pulse-raising fun and the knowledge that their AMG had the best skid/slide-prevention technology in the car business.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The last exercise of the day was a challenging slalom course. We were given several chances to drive as quickly as possible through a pylon-defined obstacle course (car clubs call this an auto-cross) with a 1/1000-of-a-second timer recording our laps. Our newly honed car-control skills, advanced braking ability and fundamental competitive nature were on full display. It was driver against driver and team against team. Fastest time would earn a prize. Best overall team average time would win bragging rights. When the scores were tallied, my co-driver won Fastest Time of Day honors, earning a custom AMG driving helmet.
At the end of the event, we gathered in the AMG chalet for closing ceremonies and the awarding of trophies and certificates. Every participant I spoke to heaped praise on the program, the AMG cars they drove and our hosts, the folks at Benzel-Busch.
Thanks to J. Agresta and his professional, customer-focused team for sponsoring this exciting, world-class event. It helped everyone who took to the track become a better, safer driver with a deeper appreciation for the incredible performance built into every AMG vehicle.